- Red Power Rising: The National Indian Youth Council and the Origins of Native Activism
The term “Red Power” has long been associated with American Indian militancy of the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially the American Indian Movement, which conducted the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., in 1972 and the siege at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973. These remarkable demonstrations have usually been ascribed to disenchanted urban Indian youths demanding Indian self-determination. However, Bradley G. Shreve, Chair of the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Diné College in Tsaile, Arizona, argues that “Red Power” and the militant Indian youth movement go back further, to the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) founded at Gallup, New Mexico, in 1961. And rather than urban Indians, it was Indian youths who had grown up on reservations or in rural areas who founded the NIYC and were the first Red Power militants.
Indian peoples have long been divided on whether to acculturate and assimilate into white American society or to uphold traditional beliefs, demand that the government recognize Indian sovereignty and treaties, and insist that Indians be allowed to determine for themselves what their future should be. The boost for self-determination came after World War II with the United States government’s “termination” policy, in which the federal government planned to terminate its relationship with most Indian tribes and turn over that responsibility to state and county governments. The land loss and poverty that followed “termination” of the Menominees of Wisconsin and Klamaths of Oregon energized many Indian people to action. The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), made up of older Indian leaders, wanted to work within the system through lawsuits and lobbying. Their motto was “Indians Don’t Demonstrate” (119). But younger Indians felt more had to be done.
During the early 1960s, many young Indians from reservations and rural areas were now attending universities. Their consciousness had been raised by attending university Indian clubs, Regional Indian Youth Councils, the annual Workshops on American Indian Affairs, and the famed 1961 American Indian Chicago Conference. Out of these came such militant Indian youths as Mel Thom (Paiute), Clyde Warrior (Ponca), Karen Rikard (Tuscarora), Shirley Hill Witt (Mohawk), Joan Noble (Ute), Herb Blatchford (Navajo), and others who founded the NIYC in August 1961. The organization’s goal was to press for Indian self-determination, cultural preservation, Indian sovereignty, and for the government to uphold treaty rights. And unlike the NCAI, they did plan on demonstrating. They got their first chance during the 1964 Washington State fish-ins, where they helped local Native Americans press for recognition of fishing rights guaranteed to them by treaty. It was here that the NIYC first used the term “Red Power.”
With the rise of more urban Indian militant groups during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the NIYC found itself torn between concentrating on Indian education or staging more highly visible protests. The dichotomy almost destroyed the organization. But in 1969, the NIYC hired Gerald Wilkinson (Eastern Band [End Page 417] Cherokee) as executive director, who steered the organization through these turbulent times and into a more urban-based Indian support and defense organization. Though Wilkinson died in 1989, the NIYC remains based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, initiates lawsuits on behalf of Indians, lobbies government officials on Indian issues, protests when need be, and tries to find jobs and housing for Indians in the Albuquerque area and elsewhere in northwestern New Mexico. By changing with the times, the NIYC remains the last surviving youth protest organization from the 1960s.
Bradley has done an excellent job showing how rural Indians wanted to change America, but also how this important but oft-overlooked Native American organization has evolved over the years.